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1978 NBA Season – Trouble

June 14, 2013


The Enforcers cover previewing the 1978 NBA Season *photo courtesy of SI Vault

In the 1970’s, the NBA was a more physical game.  Fighting happened a lot, without a hitch or much repercussions.  The biggest example happened in Game 2 of the 1977 NBA Finals between Portland and Philadelphia.  The main reason Maurice Lucas made the SI cover up top was because he had the reputation as an enforcer before the 1977 Finals.  But it was enhanced after he hit Darryl Dawkins from behind in this fight and supposedly turned around the series in Portland’s favor.

Dawkins was ejected but neither he nor Lucas was suspended.  Fast forward to the opening game of the 1978 season between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks.  The number 1 pick in the 1977 draft, Kent Benson, gave Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a shot in the gut.  Kareem comes back and punches him and breaks his hand in the process.

The NBA started realizing that they had a public relations nightmare.  There were already sliding ratings because there were more black athletes in the NBA than white in a racially divided fan base (Portland was probably as popular as it was because Walton was ‘the great white hope’).  So it didn’t help that a black guy was seen punching a white guy, especially considering that black guy was one of the league’s superstars.  However, it all came to a head on December 9, 1977.  The Houston Rockets were visiting the Lakers at the Forum.  The story is told below in part of the Redemption: Kermit Washington Story but Washington and Houston center Kevin Kunnert got into an initial fraces and as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was pulling Kunnert off, Rudy Tomjanovich came running into the play and Kermit raised up and decked him.

Tomjanovich’s face and skull was fractured and he tasted his own spinal fluid.  He survived, returned the next season and was a 1979 NBA All-Star but was never the same as a player.  Washington was suspended for 60 days.  And 18 days after the incident he was traded to Boston.  Washington played for Boston, San Diego, Portland and Golden State but never got over the incident and wasn’t the same player.

The Rockets didn’t recover from Tomjanovich being out for the year and missed the playoffs with only 28 wins.  The Lakers did recover and make the playoffs but lost in the mini-series versus Seattle.  Seattle had a young team with second year man Dennis Johnson and third year man Gus Williams in their back court.  Williams had signed as a free agent from the Golden State Warriors in the first free agent class.  With this new back court developing, the Sonics were able to trade veteran Slick Watts halfway through the season.  Freddie Brown also moved to the bench and became the 6th man and instant offense man.  The Sonics used their first round pick on 6’11” Jack Sikma.  Sikma, Williams, and Johnson were main contributors to Seattle’s rise after a 5-17 start in 1978.  The Sonics no longer had Bill Russell as coach but hired Lenny Wilkens after their bad start.

The Sonics had acquired veteran Paul Silas and third-year shot-blocking center Marvin Webster in a trade with Denver that sent Tom Burleson to the Nuggets to re-unite with NC State teammate David Thompson for one day.  He was traded by Denver to the Kansas City Kings for Brian Taylor the next day.  Taylor didn’t end up helping the Nuggets as he was injured for much of the season before heading off to the San Diego Clippers (the former Buffalo Braves) for 1979.  Denver, coached by Larry Brown, would advance to the Western Conference Finals with Thompson, Bobby Jones and Dan Issel as their core.  But they would lose to the upstart Sonics in 6 games.

Seattle in the previous round had defeated the team that was supposed to be the best team that year and were through 60 games, going 50-10.  The Portland Trailblazers though were hit with a rash of injuries, most notably the broken foot of 1978 MVP Bill Walton after that 50-10 start.  Walton missed the rest of the regular season as the Blazers went 8-14 to finish.  He tried to return for the playoffs against the Sonics but was re-injured in Game 2 and never returned.  The Sonics won that series in 6 games.  Then Walton sat out the 1979 season when he asked the Blazers to be traded citing malpractice against the team trainer and physician.

A game from Youtube shows just how dominant the Blazers were before Walton’s injury.  It is one of two full games I have from the 1978 season.  Games I had (and I hope return to Youtube) are a regular season game between Portland and Chicago in which the Blazers won 100-99 on a Lionel Hollins jumper at the buzzer, Game 2 between the Blazers and Sonics which was Walton’s last appearance with Portland, and Game 1 of the NBA Finals.  Games I have in a shortened Vintage NBA version that I can’t tell too much about is Game 1 of the playoffs between San Antonio and Washington as well as the all-or-nothing Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

January 8, 1978 – New Orleans Jazz 100 @Portland Blazers 122

Portland’s only off-season moves after their championship was exchanging Robin Jones with Houston for Tom Owens, who would become a big key as Walton’s backup center.  They also didn’t re-sign Herm Gilliam and kept 2nd round pick T.R. Dunn in his place.  They also exchanged Wally Walker to Seattle for a draft pick early in the season.  New Orleans still had star Pete Maravich, who at this time of the season was the leading scorer in the league but he would be knocked out of action with a knee injury and wasn’t eligible for the title (he still finished slightly behind George Gervin and David Thompson who had an epic scoring title race).  The Jazz had acquired Truck Robinson as a free agent and Slick Watts in a trade with the Sonics to go with Maravich and former Laker Gail Goodrich.

Goodrich got 6 early points in this game highlighted by a Maravich full-court underhand pass to Gail to put the Jazz up 8-5.  The key to Portland’s offense this season was how many layups and open jump shots they got with ball movement and player movement.  Portland’s offense was keyed by Walton and Hollins in this game as each had the hot hand.  Each had 11 in the first quarter and Portland took a 10-point lead after Walton got an offensive rebound, pump faked and hit a jump hook and Hollins hit a turnaround jumper from the baseline.  The Jazz cut it to 28-22 at the end of the quarter after Watts hit a turnaround jumper and Truck hit another.

In the second quarter, big men Tom Owens and Lloyd Neal came in and gave the Blazers a spark.  Each hit quick field goals to put Portland back up by nine.  Then Slick Watts had a breakaway layup but Bob Gross hustled back and blocked it against the glass (LeBron-style) and then hit a pull-up jumper on the next possession.  The Jazz stayed within the 6-10 point range throughout most of the quarter but Portland went up 57-43 after a 6-0 run.  Walton hit a bank shot for his 17th point and then found a cutting Hollins for a layup.  Then Hollins tipped in a miss.  New Orleans came back with a 6-0 run (4 of them from Maravich who had 16 first half points).  Hollins then got a breakaway layup for his 19th point on 8-for-9 shooting.  Portland was up 59-50 at the half.

Portland came out flying in the third.  Hollins hit a jumper then Lucas hit a follow-shot in the lane.  Lucas then hit Walton for a layup on the pick-and-roll.  The Jazz also had 5 points during this run but then the Blazers put the game away with a 12-1 run.  Walton outletted to Dave Twardzik for a coast-to-coast three-point play.  Then Maravich picked up his 4th foul and Hollins hit two free throws.  Lucas hit back-to-back field goals and then got a three-point play after a Jazz free throw.  The score was 77-56.  Hollins hit his 25th point on a pull-up bank shot to give the Blazers a 83-60 lead before he committed his 5th foul at the 5:20 mark.  Hollins only played briefly for the rest of the game, but he would be the only Blazer starter to play in the 4th.  Lucas had 15 of his 17 points in the third and the Blazers led 93-71 after the quarter.

The fourth quarter would be the Tom Owens, Lloyd Neal, T.R. Dunn, Larry Steele show for the Blazers fans who stayed despite their teams margin.  The announcers, Jerry Gross and former Baltimore Bullet Gus Johnson, were gushing about Blazermania and how great the Portland fans were.  This would be highlighted by the fact that this was the Blazers 39th straight home win (including the 1977 playoffs).  This included 21-0 in the 1978 season and a 31-5 record overall.  Those streaks would extend to 44 and 26 before Denver beat Portland at the Memorial Coliseum 103-101 on February 12.  Portland would end the month of February at 50-10 before Walton broke his foot and didn’t return until the playoffs.  New Orleans would finish at 39-43 and miss the playoffs by 2 games.  They probably would have made it had Maravich not had season-ending knee surgery.

New Orleans starters (points scored)

Aaron James (12) – Small Forward

Truck Robinson (19) – Power Forward

Rich Kelley (7) – Center

Gail Goodrich (10) – Point Guard

Pete Maravich (18) – Shooting Guard

New Orleans bench (points scored)

Jim McElroy (6)

Joe C. Meriweather (10)

Slick Watts (10)

Paul Griffin (8)

Gus Bailey (0)

New Orleans Coach: Elgin Baylor

Portland starters (points scored)

Bob Gross (8) – Small Forward

Maurice Lucas (17) – Power Forward

Bill Walton (19) – Center

Dave Twardzik (7) – Point Guard

Lionel Hollins (27) – Shooting Guard

Portland bench (points scored)

Lloyd Neal (12)

Johnny Davis (8)

Tom Owens (13)

Larry Steele (6)

Corky Calhoun (0)

T.R. Dunn (5)

Portland Coach: Jack Ramsay


Jack Ramsay and his fantastic ’70’s attire had the Blazers back and better than their championship season in 1978 *photo courtesy of Temple of Zones blog

April 16, 1978 – East Semifinals, Game 1: Washington Bullets 103 @San Antonio Spurs 114

As far as I know only a few minutes of the third quarter exist of this game.  I have it from George Gervin’s Vintage NBA.  This was Gervin’s first game since winning an epic scoring title race on the last day of the season versus David Thompson.  Coming into the last day of the season on April 9, Gervin had a slight lead in the race.  But then Thompson scored 73 points in Denver’s 139-137 loss to Detroit.  So later in the day, Gervin needed 59 points to regain the scoring title.  He scored 63 in the Spurs’ 153-132 loss to the New Orleans Jazz to win the scoring title by the skin of his teeth.

In this game, Washington had a 49-48 halftime lead as Gervin had only 10 points in the first half.  Washington was coming off a 2-game sweep of the Atlanta Hawks while the division-winning Spurs had a week off.  But Gervin came out firing in the third.  It started with a fast break slam on a Larry Kenon assist.  After the Bullets’ Kevin Grevey hit a jumper, Gervin banked one in.  Then Kenon did a one-handed up-and-under move for a layup that amazed analyst Gus Johnson.  Gervin followed with two straight jumpers and the Spurs had a 58-53 lead.  After Grevey found Mitch Kupchak for a slam, Gervin drove baseline and then hit a shot while he was level with the backboard.  It was his 10th point of the third quarter.  It was a nice little Gervin montage that is the action I have from this game.

Each team was missing a key player in this game and for the Bullets it turned out to be the difference.  Free agent signee Bob Dandridge was out with a pinched nerve in his neck.  He returned for Game 2 and the Bullets won in San Antonio and then easily won Game 3 at home to bring the series to a critical Game 4 in Washington with the Bullets up 2-1.  Meanwhile for San Antonio, point guard James Silas played in half of the Spurs playoff games in 1978 after only playing in 37 games during the season, and he wasn’t himself averaging 2.3 points per game.

Washington starters (points scored)

Mitch Kupchak (19) – Small Forward

Elvin Hayes (26) – Power Forward

Wes Unseld (14) – Center

Tom Henderson (16) – Point Guard

Kevin Grevey (14) – Shooting Guard

Washington bench (points scored)

Larry Wright (4)

Charles Johnson (2)

Greg Ballard (4)

Joe Pace (4)

Washington Coach: Dick Motta

San Antonio starters (points scored)

Larry Kenon (22) – Small Forward

Coby Dietrick (10) – Power Forward

Billy Paultz (7) – Center

Mike Gale (13) – Point Guard

George Gervin (35) – Shooting Guard

San Antonio bench (points scored)

Louie Dampier (8)

Mike Olberding (11)

Allan Bristow (4)

Mike Green (4)

San Antonio Coach: Doug Moe

April 23, 1978 – East Semifinals, Game 4: San Antonio Spurs 95 @Washington Bullets 98

The first 3 games of this series were high-scoring, but there was an early indication that this game wouldn’t go the same way.  After 5 minutes or so, the Spurs were up 6-4.  The Spurs in this series had been carried by the scoring of Gervin and Kenon.  Iceman would get off to a quick start but Larry never quite got into the flow.  Gervin hit 4 of his first 5 shots in his normal smooth fashion to give the Spurs a 16-10 lead (his smooth “cool” game was the reason he was called the Iceman).  Then a Billy Paultz three-point play put San Antonio up nine.  The Bullets responded by going on a 6-0 run.  Elvin Hayes scored on an offensive rebound, then Dandridge hit from the post and found Wes Unseld for a layup.  The story for most of this game was the Spurs grabbing a lead and the Bullets coming back.  Unseld committed his 3rd foul and the Spurs would grab a 24-18 lead at the end of the quarter in a definitely more deliberate scoring game.

Both teams would get sparks from veterans off the bench in the second quarter.  For San Antonio, Louie Dampier hit two jumpers and for the Bullets, Charles Johnson (who was signed as a free agent at mid-season after the Golden State Warriors released him) started popping in jumpers.  The Spurs kept in the lead though as Gervin kept popping them in.  He hit 8 of his first 12 shots and had 20 points in the first half.  But the Bullets got a spark just before halftime.  With San Antonio up 47-39, Dandridge popped in a baseline jumper with 7 seconds left.  But it didn’t end there, the Spurs threw away the inbounds pass at halfcourt with 2 seconds left.  In those two seconds, Unseld found Tom Henderson for a layup at the buzzer and the lead was cut to four.

The Spurs maintained a 53-49 lead when Kenon hit a baseline jumper.  But then Dandridge hit a driving hook in the lane and Hayes got an offensive rebound to tie the game.  It was the first of many times the Bullets would tie the game.  It was also the first of many times that the Spurs regained an advantage after Washington tied it.  Mike Gale and Dandridge exchanged jumper and then Mark Olberding nailed a jumper and Gale found Kenon on the break for a layup.  After Charles Johnson and Olberding exchanged field goals, Johnson hit a running banker and Unseld tipped in a miss to tie the game again.  Unseld was the beneficiary of much Bullets penetration as he was 6-for-8 from the field at that point and all were layups/putbacks.  The Spurs went back up by four but the Bullets cut it to 71-70 at the end of the third quarter.

Mike Green, who was starting in place of Coby Dietrick for this game, hit his first two field goals of the game to start the fourth.  The Bullets responded once again to tie the game at 79 as Dandridge got his 22nd point with a breakaway layup.  But the Bullets couldn’t grab the lead and the Spurs regained an 88-84 lead on a Gervin finger roll.  Gervin then responded to a Dandridge putback by scoring again on a banker from the wing.  But then Dandridge stole the ball from Gervin on the Spurs next possession.  He found Charles Johnson for a breakaway layup and it was 90-88 San Antonio.  Then on another Bullets fast break, Johnson found Dandridge who found Hayes for a layup as the game came down the stretch.  Gervin hit a free throw and then another bank shot in the lane for his 35th point.  Hayes followed with an offensive rebound.  Then after a Gervin miss, Johnson found fellow backup guard Larry Wright for a layup and a foul, and the Bullets finally took the lead at 94-93 with 1:00 left.  Wright missed the free throw and Hayes committed his 5th foul on the rebound, sending Paultz to the line where he made two.  But then Wright found Hayes for a slam and the Bullets led again.  Hayes then rejected Gervin’s shot and Dandridge got the ball with under 30 seconds left.  The Spurs were originally going to let the Bullets run down the shot clock and hope to rebound a miss and get a last shot.  But at 11 seconds, Gervin fouled Johnson much to the chagrin of coach Doug Moe.  Johnson’s two free throws iced the game at 98-95 (since there was no three-point line).

The Spurs won Game 5 at home but the Bullets closed them out back in Landover in Game 6.  Washington then upset a disintegrating Philadelphia 76ers team to reach the Finals versus the Seattle Sonics.

San Antonio starters (points scored)

Larry Kenon (10) – Small Forward

Mike Green (8) – Power Forward

Billy Paultz (17) – Center

Mike Gale (10) – Point Guard

George Gervin (35) – Shooting Guard

San Antonio bench (points scored)

Louie Dampier (4)

Mark Olberding (7)

Coby Dietrick (4)

San Antonio Coach: Doug Moe

Washington starters (points scored)

Bob Dandridge (24) – Small Forward

Elvin Hayes (23) – Power Forward

Wes Unseld (17) – Center

Tom Henderson (6) – Point Guard

Kevin Grevey (4) – Shooting Guard

Washington bench (points scored)

Mitch Kupchak (1)

Larry Wright (6)

Charles Johnson (17)

Greg Ballard (0)

Washington Coach: Dick Motta


Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge led the Bullets past the Spurs in 1978 and Hayes earned an SI cover *photo courtesy of Truth About It

June 7, 1978 – NBA Finals, Game 7: Washington Bullets 105 @Seattle Sonics 99

A series between a 44-win team and a 47-win team for the championship.  That along with the fact that neither team really had a marketable star and can you believe that there aren’t many games to be shown of it nowadays.  The only portions of Game 7 I’ve been able to grab was from Wes Unseld’s Vintage NBA.  The Sonics had won Games 1, 3, and 5 while the Bullets came back with wins in 2, 4, and 6.  A big key to the Bullets in their Game 6 blowout at home was switching Bob Dandridge to the back court and going with a big lineup of Hayes, Unseld, and Greg Ballard.  This put size on the floor against Seattle, who usually went with a three guard lineup of Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown off the bench.

This also worked for Bullets in Game 7 in the Seattle Center Coliseum.  That combined with Charles Johnson giving them a spark off the bench and the Seattle starting back court shooting trouble which we’ll get to (it included a shooting performance of historical significance).  The first and second quarters went back and forth with Bob Dandridge hitting a long jumper to end the first and put the Bullets up 31-28.  Washington grabbed a 53-45 halftime lead with balance.  While nobody from Washington scored over 19 points, six Bullets ended the game in double figures.  Washington grabbed an advantage in the third and a Charles Johnson shot from over half court at the buzzer gave the Bullets a 79-66 lead after three.

Seattle cut the lead to 88-81 halfway through the 4th quarter as the big men of Marvin Webster and Jack Sikma led them back and were helped by Elvin Hayes fouling out.  Sikma hit a free throw on Unseld’s 5th foul to cut the lead to six and give the rookie 20 points.  That along with Webster’s 27 point output were far and away their best scoring games of the series.  The lead maintained at 98-92 for the Bullets when Fred Brown hit a runner with under two minutes left to cut it to four.  Then Charles Johnson missed a long shot and there was a rebound scramble.  Tom Henderson hit the floor and got it to Mitch Kupchak for an ‘and-one’ layup.  That put the Bullets up 101-94 and seemed to give a cushion.  But Brown scored the next 3 points and Seattle had the ball back trailing 101-97 with 26 seconds left.  After the inbounds, Brown’s jumper went in-and-out but Paul Silas’ putback cut the lead to 101-99.  The Bullets moved the ball around in the back court before Unseld was fouled at 12 seconds.  Wes had just missed two free throws and missed the first shot of the penalty three-to-make-two situation.  But Wes came back by hitting the next two.

Seattle inbounded and Dennis Johnson missed a long jumper.  Unseld rebounded and got it to Bob Dandridge for the clinching slam as the Bullets won the first championship for Washington D.C. since the Redskins in 1942.  Johnson’s miss concluded an 0-for-14 Game 7 for young Dennis.  He would come back and become a money player later in his career but for this night, he set a playoff and finals futility record for shooting.  Gus Williams’ 4-for-12 didn’t help much either.

The two teams would come back stronger next season with the only major chance being on the Seattle side.  Marvin Webster signed with New York as a free agent.  While the free agent clause in the Oscar Robertson suit was being settled, teams who lost a name player got compensation from the team that signed that player.  So Seattle got powerful Lonnie Shelton as that compensation from the Knicks and Shelton would become Seattle’s starting power forward while Sikma moved to the middle.  They would meet each other in the 1979 Finals but not before some tough 7-game playoff battles.

Washington starters (points scored)

Bob Dandridge (19) – Small Forward

Elvin Hayes (12) – Power Forward

Wes Unseld (15) – Center

Tom Henderson (15) – Point Guard

Kevin Grevey (6) – Shooting Guard

Washington bench (points scored)

Mitch Kupchak (13)

Larry Wright (2)

Charles Johnson (19)

Greg Ballard (4)

Washington Coach: Dick Motta

Seattle starters (points scored)

John Johnson (10) – Small Forward

Jack Sikma (21) – Power Forward

Marvin Webster (27) – Center

Gus Williams (12) – Point Guard

Dennis Johnson (4) – Shooting Guard

Seattle bench (points scored)

Fred Brown (21)

Bruce Seals (0)

Paul Silas (4)

Seattle Coach: Lenny Wilkens

1978 finals

Elvin Hayes and Fred Brown going after a loose ball in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Kevin Grevey (#35) is in the foreground *photo courtesy of Examiner


From → NBA

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